James Wickersham, born August 24, 1857 near Patoka, Illinois, moved in
1883 with his wife, Deborah, to Tacoma, Washington Territory.
There he served as county probate judge and Tacoma
city attorney and, in 1898, was elected to the Washington
Territorial House of Representatives.
When the 65th Congress passed the Civil Code of Alaska
in 1900, the second and third judicial districts were created
for the northern portion of Alaska, and President McKinley
appointed James Wickersham district judge for the Third
Judicial District, headquartered at Eagle City. In June of
1900, Wickersham was sworn in, becoming the first judge to
sit in the Interior of Alaska.
The new district covered some 300,000 square miles; it
had no roads, no public buildings, and almost no U.S.
currency. The district court and its officials were the only
civilian government, besides town functionaries, in the
whole of the Interior. In addition to traveling his circuit, the
district judge was expected to procure land and materials to
construct his own courthouse and jails. It was fortunate that
his duties also included the collection of mercantile and
saloon license fees, for Congress had provided no other
funds for the construction and operation of the court.
The circuit was covered by boat in summer, dogsled in
winter. When claim-jumping disputes at Rampart required
the attention of the court in 1901, Wickersham traveled
from Eagle City to preside, a round-trip journey of over
1,000 miles of dog mushing, made in 45 days, including six
days of court.
The following summer he traveled to Unalaska in the Aleutians
to try the Hardy murder case;
returning to Nome, he presided over the Second Judicial
District, temporarily without a judge after the Noyes
In the spring of 1903, following Felix Pedro's strike in the
Tanana Valley and the ensuing stampede, Judge Wickersham
loaded the court records into a dogsled and moved
his headquarters to the new population center, Fairbanks, a
collection of tents and a few log cabins.
Wickersham had great appreciation for the beauty and
resources of the Tanana Valley, frequently citing its
agricultural potential. He found time to enjoy hunting and
hiking, stopping at Native encampments to hear their
history and learn their mores and place names. In the summer
of 1903 he led the first attempt to climb Mt. McKinley,
taking directions from Olyman Cheah of the Tena band of
Wickersham resigned as district judge in 1908, and was
elected as Alaska's delegate to Congress. He served until
1920, and was re-elected in 1930. He secured the passage of
the Organic Act of 1912 granting Alaska territorial status.
He introduced the Alaska Railroad Bill, and the legislation
to establish McKinley Park, and was responsible for the
creation of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of
Mines, later to become the University of Alaska, In 1916, he
introduced the first Alaska Statehood Bill.
Frequently at the center of controversy, Wickersham
exerted a greater influence on events during the formative
years of the Alaskan Territory than any other individual.
He was the author of many articles about Alaska, on
subjects ranging from the salmon industry to Alaska's need for
self government. He compiled the first edition of the Alaska
Reports, a record of all decisions of the Alaska courts, and,
after retiring from Congress at age 76, he assembled the
first index of all material published about Alaska, the
Wickersham died in Juneau on October 23, 1939. In 1949,
the Alaska Territorial Legislature paid tribute to his
memory by designating his birthday, August 24, Wickersham